A number of years ago I watched a deeply moving play exploring an old man’s experiences during the disorientation of his dementia. Perth based performers Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts provided a beautiful, thoughtful insight which was incredibly touching. I am sure I wasn’t the only person who left the theatre in tears!

The play begins with a sad elderly man watching television. At sunset he becomes alarmed by first a teacup shifting, and then his furniture moving inexplicably. This simple starting point being especially powerful knowing that dusk is the time of day that people suffering this condition can become their most confused. So fearful is he, he runs from his home out into the darkness. He then begins a journey, being pursued by a figure with a butterfly net. Possibly symbolising the man both being chased by, and trying to capture his memories, which are evasively fluttering around him.

Dementia rates are rising. It is estimated that ‘three in 10 people over the age of 85 and almost one in 10 people over the age of 65 have dementia’. More alarming is that the rate of people with younger onset dementia is increasing. This may affect people in their 50’s, 40’s and even their 30’s.

So what is dementia? Dementia Australia states ‘dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Brain function is affected enough to interfere with the person’s normal social or working life.

As we age, it’s normal that we may suffer occasional lapses of memory. However with dementia, there is a progressive decline in short term memory, such as forgetting where you have put your keys or forgetting to pay a bill. Yet often the memory of events that occurred a long time ago can be easily recalled. Sometimes while telling a story, the individual has difficulty finding the correct word or may pause as if they were searching for what they were about to say. It may be the individual cannot seem to find the name for a person, even if the other person is very familiar.

The person may appear confused, make poor decisions or have difficulty concentrating. They may experience sudden mood changes and appear to not realise those changes have occurred or that they are unusual or out of character. Irritability, anxiety or depression may be present. The person may start to lose interest in their normal life.

Often what is noticed is the person may repeat their stories, forgetting they have told them before. This may extend to forgetting they have done something, like checking the mail box, so they may check it repeatedly. Humour is often used by those observing these behaviours. Asking incredulously, ‘are you for real?!’ is unlikely to be understood as light-hearted, in fact, people experiencing this condition may become more concrete and literal in their communication.

They may forget how to do simple routine tasks such as tying shoelaces and also stop being able to learn and retain new information. For example, being shown how to send a text message on a mobile phone, and then being unable to remember how to do this later. They may have difficulty coping with changes in their routines or environment. Some may start to lose their sense of direction, forgetting how to get to a particular place including returning to their home. Also common is arriving at a destination yet forgetting how they got there or why they wanted to go there.

There are a range of preventative solutions to reduce the risk of dementia including:

  • Ensuring you have a healthy diet including Omega-3 fats (tuna, salmon, seaweed etc).
  • Engage in mental stimulation exercises such as crossword puzzles, quizzes, changing your routines.
  • Participate in regular exercise.
  • Activate your relaxation and stress management techniques.
  • Schedule social activities such as volunteering, clubs / groups, and catching up with family / friends.
  • Make sure you get quality sleep.

For more information: www.dementia.org.au